June 5 - August 8, 1982
Oil on canvas
531/8 x 373/8 inches (135 x 95 cm.)
Signed and dated at left, above the sofa: L. E. Vigee Le Brun / a naple en 1790
Institut de France, Musee Jacquemart-Andre, Paris
She was a voluptuous and indolent creature of pleasure, this blond niece of the mighty Russian Prince Grigori Alexandrovitch Potemkin, the favorite of Catherine II. Born Catherine Vassilievna Engelhardt (1761-1829), she was one of five daughters of Basil Andreivitch Engelhardt, of Smolensk, and Helena Alexandrovna Potemkin. Like two of her sisters, Alexandrina and Barbara, as a young girl she became her uncle's mistress. She accepted the situation as a matter of course, without passion or depth of feeling, and their relationship lasted for many years. In 1780, while attending the Empress on her trip through White Russia, she met Count Paul Martinovitch Skavronsky (1757-1793), a young Livonian aristocrat and nephew of the late Czarina Elisabeth Petrovna. Potemkin saw a convenient match between his niece and Skavronsky, and the two were wed in 1781. Soon thereafter she accompanied Grand Duke Paul Petrovitch and his wife, Maria Feodorovna, on their tour of Europe. Two daughters were eventually born of her marriage, Catherine (later Princess Bagration) and Maria (later Countess Pahlen). Her young husband's love of music was such that he mistook the ridiculous for the sublime: he gave orders to his servants and would occasionally converse with his guests in song, and they felt obliged to respond in kind; in the Skavronsky house, one often spoke in recitatives. A great Italophile, the Count was sent off to Naples in 1784 as Russian ambassador. Catherine remained behind in Saint Petersburg with her uncle, and through his influence was made lady-in-waiting to the Empress. Skavronsky's already poor health worsened, and she finally had to join him in Naples.
Upon his death in 1793, the Countess returned to Russia. On the day of his coronation, Paul I granted her membership in the order of Saint Catherine. In 1798, she -married the ambassador of the Knights of Malta, Count Giulio Litta (1763-1839; see cat. no. 41), a handsome Italian she had first encountered in Naples, where Vigee Le Brun painted his portrait (location unknown; formerly in the Samoiloff and Princesse Mathilde Bonaparte-Demidoff collections; exhibited, Paris, L'Exposition de I'art francais sous Louis XIV et Louis XV, 1888, no. 58). In 1798, she received the Grand Cross of Malta and in 1824 was elevated to the rank of First Lady of the Imperial Court. She died in 1829 at the age of sixty-eight.
Vigee Le Brun left Rome for Naples on April 17, 1790. In Italy her clientele was almost exclusively made up of foreign travelers; they alone were able to afford the prices she charged for her work. The immensely wealthy Skavronsky could indulge in such a luxury, and the artist scarcely had time to take up residence at Chiaia near the Russian embassy, when he commissioned her to paint his wife's portrait. In a letter addressed to the Comtesse du Barry and dated July 2, 1790, Mme Le Brun mentioned the painting as already in progress: "Je peins ici M de Scavronski L'ambasadrice de Rusie qui est fraiche jolie et excelentissime personne." (I am painting Mme de Scavronski, the Ambassadress of Russia, who is a fresh, pretty and most excellent person.) (Original letter, Paris, Archives Nationales: W 16; reprod. in facsimile in Nolhac, 1908, facing p.98).
The completed portrait reflects the shallowness of the sitter's personality, her characteristic lethargy.
The Countess was as sweet and pretty as an angel. The famous Potemkin, her uncle, had showered her with riches, of which she made no use. Her pleasure was stretching out on a couch without a corset, wrapped in a black pelisse. Her mother-in-law had her sent from Paris cases of the most delightful creations of Mlle Bertin, [Queen Marie Antoinette's dress maker]. I do not believe the Countess ever opened a single one of them, and when her mother-in-law expressed the wish to see her wearing some of those charming gowns and hats... , she responded nonchalantly: Should I bother? for whom? for what purpose? She told me the same thing when she showed me her jewelry box, one of the most splendid imaginable. It contained enormous diamonds that Potemkin had given her and that I never saw her wear. I remember her telling me that in order to fall asleep, she had a slave under her bed who would tell her the same story every night. In the daytime, she was constantly idle. She had no education, and her conversation was nonexistent. Nevertheless, thanks to her ravishing face and angelic temperament, she possessed an invincible charm. Count Scavronski was madly in love with her ... (Souvenirs, II, 84-85).
By all accounts, Catherine Skavronsky was a beautiful woman, but her face was a mere mask. In this portrait, it is the rich variety of textures - flesh, hair, satin, silk, velvet, muslin, pearls; the languorous pose (patterned on that of The Duchesse d'Orleans, cat. no. 28); and the unusual combination of colors which vie for the spectator's attention. There is no profound statement of character, for there was little character to portray. The Countess was of the category of women about whom Vigee Le Brun wrote: "As much as possible, I tried to give the women I painted the mood and expression of their physiognomy. As for those who had no physiognomy (one sees them), I painted them dreaming, casually reclining" (Souvenirs, I, 54).
In her list of paintings executed in Naples, Mme Le Brun cites two busts of Countess Skavronsky, both of which probably depended from the Jacquemart-Andre portrait. Those works remain untraced. An autograph drawing in graphite after the present painting, with color notations in the artist's own hand, has been incorrectly published as a preparatory work (see S. Ernst, 1935, cited below, pp. 161-163, illus. p. 161).
Anonymous copies of this painting, executed in various media, have been recorded: 1) canvas, formerly Youssoupoff collection; 2) black chalk drawing by the engraver Guglielmo Morghen (see below), dated 1791, formerly in collection of Grand-Duke Nicholas Makhailovitch, illus. in Nolhac, 1908, facing p. 94; 3) miniature copy at one time in the collection of Baroness Pierarch. A related painting, formerly in the Sedelmeyer collection and attributed to Vigee Le Brun, is purportedly signed and dated 1798 (see Helm, , p. 208).
A bust portrait of the Countess, attributed to Vigee Le Brun and formerly in the collection of Count P.P. Chouvaloff, shows the sitter wearing a veil (exhibited, Saint Petersburg, Historical Exhibition of Portraits of the XVIth to the XVIlIth Centuries, Saint Petersburg, 1870, no. 705 and illus. in A. M. Lusheff, Album of Portraits Of Famous Russians, Saint Petersburg, 1870, no. 383). Helm (p. 208) cites as in the Youssoupoff collection a knee-length portrait attributed to Vigee Le Brun and showing Countess Skavronsky wearing a white dress and a beige shawl edged with black and holding a book on her knees. A portrait of a woman identified as Countess Skavronsky, inscribed with the artist's name and dated from Moscow in 1801, is in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
ENGRAVING:Guglielmo Morghen, 1791.
PROVENANCE: Collection of the sitter; to her daughter, Countess Maria Pahlen, later Countess Ojarowsky; to her daughter, Countess Julia Pavlovna Samoiloff; sold to F. Petit, Paris: acquired in 1872 by Edouard Andre.
SELECTED EXHIBITIONS: New York, Wildenstein, Treasures of the Musee Jacquemart-Andre, January 18-February 18, 1956, no. 41, illus.; Albi, Musee Toulouse-Lautrec, Exposition des chefs-d'oeuvre du Musee Jacquemart-Andre, March 17-April 30, 1959, no. 39, irus. pl. XXXIII; Rome, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, L'Italia vista dai pittori francesi del XVIII e XIX secolo, February-March 1961, no. 380 (exh. traveled to Turin, 1961, no. 370); Bregenz, Vorarlberger Landesmuseum, Angelika Kauffmann und ihre Zeitgenossen, July 23-October 13, 1968, no. 466, illus. (exh. traveled to Vienna, Osterreichisches Museum fair Angewandte Kunst).
SELECTED REFERENCES: Souvenirs, II, 85, 369; Nolhac, 1908, pp. 94-95, 97; Helm, [19151, pp. 112-113, 208 (great confusion and inaccuracies concerning different versions); Hautecoeur, [19171, pp. 80-83, illus. p. 81; Blum, 1919, pp. 57, 100 (incorrectly cited); S. Ernst, "Une esquisse pour le portrait de la comtesse Skavronska, par Mme Vigee Le Brun," Bulletin des Musees de France, No. 10 December 1935, pp. 161-162, illus, p. 162; C. Constans, "Un portrait de Catherine Vassiliewna Skavronskaia par Madame Vigee Le Brun," La Revue du Louvre, Nos. 4-5, 1967, pp. 266, 269, 270, illus. p. 268; L. Nikolenko, 1967, p.101, no. 7, illus.
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.
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